In 1992 (great year) Jaguar created what would be the fastest road car ever; but it was called a failure. Volume 2 of Stelvio Retrospective looks at the turbo charged whirlwind that was the Jaguar XJ220.

By Sean Smith

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the pinnacle of the automotive arms race in the supercar division. Fuelled by stock market boom in the US and development in key economies, car companies were able to throw big budgets at racing projects and their supercar programmes. Ferrari had launched the F40 which was hitting speeds around 200mph whilst Porsche and their stablemate ‘RUF’ had set the all-time World Record speed of 212.5mph with their 911 derived CTR Yellow Bird.

Jaguar in that time had been dominating the endurance racing scene winning Le Mans in 1988 and 1990 with the infamous Silk Cut sponsored XJR9 and XJR12 and from these successes they were tasked with bringing Le Mans to the road and also go for Porsche’s (RUF’s) World Record with a supercar to beat all others. This car was to become the Jaguar XJ220.

Design began for the project back in the late 80s and was revealed to the world in 1988 at the British International Motor Show (above), the car was lauded by media and the paying public at large. The XJ220 is said to have received 1,500 deposits of £50,000 each laid down for it. The Jaguar board were convinced they were on to a winner and set a launch date for 1992.

The plan was to literally make a road version of the type of cars Jaguar had been racing at Le Mans. The XJ220 would have a road going version of the XJR9’s V12 which won in 1988. But just as all the deposits had been put down, all the paperwork had been signed off and all was looking rosy for the big cat. The economy decided to change the world.

The 90s recession bit hard and in a matter of months all but wiped out the market the XJ220 was going to have. That meant people began cancelling their orders, and Jaguars success story was turning into a financial nightmare. Then during development, the fabled and promised 7.0 litre V12 that Jaguar were going to use was replaced due to European emissions laws coming in and the fact that in testing the road going version of the V12 couldn’t hit the targets in power or speed that Jaguar wanted for their land speed record attempt.

These factors crippled the market-base and turned the positive press against the XJ220 even further as not only were people losing money on a car they couldn’t afford in the first place, but that car was also not what was initially sold to them as a concept only a couple of years beforehand.

By this point Jaguar were only making the XJ220 as a show of force and nothing else aside from the top speed mattered to the bosses and their screaming wallets. By putting in the Twin Turbo 3.5 litre V6 (above) Jaguar were able to increase their power to 540bhp, the engine also freed up space for the venturi diffuser tray under the car that increased downforce and the new engine reduced the weight of the car as well. 

It even improved fuel economy to as high as 32mpg which is incredible even today for a supercar; back then it was almost on par with an everyday family saloon.

The XJ220 eventually released in 1992 as planned but would eventually only sell 275 cars in total. The sales numbers were bleak but it would get even worse for Jaguar; along with the development mess, the PR shark attacks and economic crisis at the worst possible time, the XJ220 now had to face a challenger for its speed record attempt, the McLaren F1.

The McLaren on paper destroys the Jaguar. It only has a naturally aspirated engine, something which Jaguar literally binned for not being powerful enough, but thanks to BMW, the McLaren F1 had 627bhp, 87 more than the XJ220 and was even more aerodynamically efficient. Jaguar saw the writing on the wall so had to act quickly to get the attempt completed before the McLaren (below) was ready.

Jaguar took the car to the Nardo track in Italy where after minor modifications if achieved 217mph. They succeeded in becoming the fastest car ever, but even this was a failure to the company which desperately wanted to reach 220mph as both a landmark as well as perfect advertising for a car called the ‘XJ220’. The car failed to improve so the goal was set in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ records from 1994 to 1998. Fortunately, McLaren delayed their run until then despite beating that 217mph target years beforehand with an earlier version of the car; McLaren eventually set a record of 240.1mph.

The XJ220 resulted in a massive cost to the company. Jaguar has never made another supercar nor have they ever created something faster than the XJ220 again. Even the C-X75 (above) which was produced by the company in 2010 with Williams F1 as a concept to be the petrol electric successor to the XJ220 was never commissioned due to fears over costs during the most recent recessionary period. It is beyond argument that the memory of the financial disaster the company took from the XJ220 in comparable economic circumstances in the 90s played a part in the C-X75s cancellation.

It is entirely possible that with the evermore electric and emission focussed world of the 21st century that the XJ220 will never be bested by Jaguar themselves for outright top speed, certainly not using fossil fuels at the very least. The car is still officially the 2nd fastest British road car ever produced behind the McLaren and should receive praise for its achievements far beyond what it ever did in the 90s.

It is probably my favourite car aesthetically from the 1990s (baring my Toyota Celica) and it is undoubtedly a favourite for many an enthusiast of the Jaguar brand. At the end of the day, it was a world beater, and in reality that’s all that needs to be said of the Jaguar XJ220. If you want one today, expect to pay around £430,000, coincidentally that’s exactly what it cost back in 1992.